"Can the magic of 59th and Lexington play in Peoria?" was the pregnant question the Daily News Record--the newspaper of the menswear industry--asked last fall when Bloomingdale's opened five new stores, not in Peoria, as it happens, but in California. * Department stores are aggressively on the march. Bloomingdale's, for example, now has 21 far-flung branches and, according to the report in the industry paper, the new California stores are expected "to do between $50 million and $70 million each" in sales this year. They are facing stiff competition: in the Los Angeles area, for example, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom and a host of spirited specialty shops are all within several miles of the Bloomingdale's in Century City. Nordstrom, which has 83 stores in 17 states across the United States, plans to open another three full-line stores this year.
Achieving success in new locations is certainly challenging, and preparations for doing business in the twenty-first century go on apace. Of course, department stores have had well over a century's history to hone their skills.
Shortly after the American Civil War ended, the two engines that most promoted the selling of consumer goods--the mail-order catalog and the department store--came into being. As far back as the late 1860s, dry goods stores were using catalogs to sell their wares by mail. By the turn of the century, about 1,200 mail-order businesses were competing for the more than six million customers available to them.
Department stores had arisen at the same time in the major East Coast cities of New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as the Midwest metropolis of Chicago. They developed so rapidly in Chicago, as a result of commercial restructuring after the great fire of 1871, that Theodore Dreiser wrote a chapter about them in his 1900 novel Sister Carrie:
"The nature of these vast retail combinations, should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation. Such a flowering out of a modest trade principle the world had never witnessed up to that time. They were along the line of the most effective retail organization, with hundreds of stores coordinated into one and laid out upon the most imposing and economic basis. They were handsome, bustling, successful affairs, with a host of clerks and a swarm of patrons."
Fashion had always been an aspect of the department store's wares. Fashion merchandising, in the words of William Leach (author of Land of Desire, a history of merchant culture in the United States), "democratized desire." For women, department store fashion quickly introduced a world of aristocratic glamour and exotic allure. For men, it took a while longer. The displays of menswear, as well as the actual clothes themselves, were less glamorous and assuming. Neckwear was the only category of menswear in which some color and dash were seen.
All that has changed, of course. The introduction of sportswear--which gained momentum between the world wars, as the time for and interest in sports increased--altered the look of displays with a greater variety of clothes and colors. This was followed by the designer movement, which came to menswear at the end of the 1950s. Soon there were men's runway fashion shows, colorful displays of everything from athletic shoes and flowery waistcoats to patterned underwear, crayon-colored polo shirts and polypropylene parkas. Perhaps menswear still doesn't vie equally with women's clothes in store displays, but it's close. Men's clothing is still slightly more subtle.
"Actually, I'd call stores like ours specialty stores, rather than department stores," says Derrill Osborn, director of men's clothingat Neiman Marcus. "Not just any department store can sell quality men's clothing, you know. It takes expertise on the part of the sales staff, who must be knowledgeable in cut, fit, fabric, styling. Quality clothing is a personal investment."
Today, if there is one observation to emerge from strolling the menswear departments of these sizable stores, it's that we are living in a fashionably global economy. Manufacturing and designer labels are from everywhere. At the lower end of the clothing manufacturing spectrum, third world countries seem to predominate, while the Italians by and large rule the high end. Prices for suits run the gamut from around $450 for a private-label Metropolitan View at Bloomingdale's to $2,775 for a Brioni at Neiman Marcus. Some designer names such as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and Armani are omnipresent, although tailored clothing collections may well be completely different from one store to another. The reason is that stores want agreements of exclusivity regarding fabrics that buyers have selected from these resources. In this sense, it can be said that the store's fashion collections are a cooperative effort between producers and sellers.
Similarities in sportswear are more usual--Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Calvin Klein khakis seem to be ubiquitous, for example--but even there one may find differences in the collection holdings, which can be put down to the "flavor" of the fashion approach, whether it is more heavily traditional or more forward. Here too there is private-label merchandise.
What is perhaps not as well known but should be noted, the prestige department stores offer what is generally called a personalized shopping service, i.e., a professional adviser who helps customers plan their purchases.
It seems to be a rule that American businessmen don't have the time or inclination to shop for their clothes. These stores know that service is important and time is precious. Department store shopping for menswear has also increased in the past two decades proportionately as local haberdasheries have declined and disappeared. Local haberdasheries provided, however, friendly, personal guidance, and many men felt cast adrift, sartorially speaking, in the wide aisles. Thus enter the professional shopping service department.
Nordstrom, for example, has a service called "Personal Touch," which aims to make shopping easier by helping you, the customer (and I quote here from their brochure on the subject): update your present wardrobe; coordinate an entirely new wardrobe for business, travel or casual wear; select items from any department in the store; save time by having items ready for you to try on when you arrive in the store; select just the right gift items and have them gift-wrapped, at no extra charge.
The Personal Touch staff will even conduct group seminars on wardrobe planning, travel packing, fashion updates and the rest. This is considerably beyond the why-don't-we-find-a-nice-tie-to-go-with-that-suit type of thing. There is even an e-mail shopping service, called Nordstrom Personal Touch America.
As the amount of retail space has doubled in the past 20 years and competition has increased as well, there has been pressure to strengthen the service aspect of the shopping experience. More and more, sales clerks (often now called by the more honorific title of "associates") are being trained to understand the products they are selling. These days sales staffs at these stores continuously seem to receive current product information through training sessions, seminars conducted by buyers and vendors, and other experts, and even information sessions via video.
"At Saks," says fashion director Stanley Tucker, "we're very much aware of service. We do educational seminars for our sales force with every collection in every city. And that includes videotapes of fashion trends, and interactive live broadcasts as well. We feel it's essential that our salesmen understand how the clothing is made, worn and accessorized. They wear the clothing of the particular collection they're selling--that way they'll know it intimately."
Saks has its "Fifth Avenue Club," which operates not only as a fashion consultant, but somewhat like a European-style concierge, adept at getting theater tickets as well as the latest Armanisports jacket.
We've considered the four leading national department stores that devote most of their space to fashion. All have branches across the United States, either in downtowns or suburban malls. While there must be some quarter given to climate and lifestyle--a large stock of tweed suits in Houston would be wrong--the stores strive to maintain a consistent style and image that will work in all branches.
A department store will endeavor to outfit a man cap-a-pie (from head to foot), with jewelry, umbrellas, small leather goods and toiletries thrown in for good measure. It is impossible here to note it all, so discussion is limited to listing representative items of clothing. Addresses for flagship stores are given. Telephone for information about other venues.
1000 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10022
The most fashion-driven of stores, Bloomingdale's sets its sights on the young and the trendy--and does so with considerable glitter and dazzle. There seems to be an audible buzz in Bloomingdale's stores, the result no doubt of the quick movement of ideas and styles. Taking chances on bright new designers is a tradition here (and virtually every established designer today was first given prominence by Bloomingdale's). A good reason for a browse is simply to see what's new and where fashion is going. Bloomingdale's has a reputation for having it fast and first.
Menswear prices are generally moderate: suits range from $450 to $1,000. In addition to Bloomingdale's own private-label Metropolitan View line, tailored clothing labels represented include Joseph Abboud, Ralph Lauren, Andrew Fezza, Hugo Boss, Ferre, Canali and Armani. Shirts and ties complement these labels, as well as the store's own sizable "Peterborough Row" collection.
The extensive range of sportswear--often a designer will have his own in-store boutique built to his style specifications to showcase a collection--is particularly strong on the American labels: Donna Karan, Perry Ellis, Jhane Barnes, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. Additional offerings by Guess, Mossimo, Versace and Mondo, among others.
Main and Ervay streets, Dallas, Texas 75201
With 30 stores across the United States, Neiman's prides itself on having the finest tailored clothing available. It caters to the affluent customer, and, inasmuch as most of the men who shop here are CEO types who wear suits most of the time, sportswear is not the overriding concern it is at other stores. Suits start at around $1,000, the average price of its private "Marcus" label. At the other, sybaritic, end is Neiman's extensive range of handmade Italian suits by Brioni, Kiton and Luciano Barbera (average price: $2,500). In between are the very tasteful and stylish names of Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan in the more courant mode, the elegant European silhouettes of Zegna and Valentino, the Savile Row-oriented approach of Ralph Lauren's "Purple Label" and the more traditional Hickey Freeman. Especially noteworthy, Neiman's has the world's largest collection of Oxxford clothing, American-made quality comparable to custom tailoring.
Ties and shirts are also available with these labels, as well as Versace, Ferragamo, Ike Behar, Stephano Ricci, Gucci, Calvin Klein and Lorenzini, and a particularly good selection by a trio of the finest European shirtmakers: Borrelli (Italy), Charvet (France) and Turnbull & Asser (England). All of which makes Neiman's one of the best places in the world to buy shirts and ties.
Sportswear here, more properly described as elegantly casual clothing, turns up exclusive collections by Iceberg, Coogi, Wilke-Rodriguez and Loro Piana. If there are any sweatshirts or sweatpants around, it's a good bet that they're cashmere.
"We have a personal shopping service, of course," says Derrill Osborn, "but most of our customers have a sense of loyalty to their salesperson, who, at Neiman's, will accompany a customer from department to department and act as a knowledgeable and trustworthy guide."
1321 2nd Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98111
Begun as a family business in Seattle, Nordstrom now has 83 branches and is firmly in the middle of our spectrum: the modus operandi here is to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, by providing a broad range of clothing, which means that the ratio between sportswear and businesswear is fairly even. Suits are priced from around $695 to $1,200, with an emphasis on modern traditional styling by such names as Hickey Freeman; Hart, Schaffner & Marx; and Nordstrom's private label. But there are also the designer offerings of Joseph Abboud and Mickey Spatz, among others.
Nordstrom is the only department store in the United States that carries Faconnable, the French designer label famous throughout Europe for urbane tailoring and colorful sportswear. A complete range of Faconnable styles are available for men, from worsted suits and cashmere jackets to outerwear and toiletries. The brightly patterned dress shirts and neckwear are of particular interest. Additional shirts and ties from the John W. Nordstrom furnishings line, Ferrell Reed and Robert Talbott make this a strong category.
Nordstrom offers a munificent selection of sportswear: collections from Nautica, Mondo di Marco, Pronto-Uomo, Robert Comstock leathers, Callaway Golf Apparel and Footwear (exclusive to Nordstrom) and private-label Evergreen sportswear predominate. Also of note is the extensive shoe department, with more than 20 name brands, including town shoes by Allen-Edmonds, Cole-Haan, Ferragamo, Kenneth Cole and Cable & Co.; casuals from Hush Puppy, Industrial, Dr. Martens, Rockport and Sebago; and sports shoes by Ecco, New Balance, Mephisto and Nike. Nordstrom shoe departments offer shoe shine booths as well.
Saks Fifth Avenue
611 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10022
A name that has been synonymous with the carriage trade since it moved to Fifth Avenue in 1924, Saks has increased its emphasis--and floor space--on menswear over the past several years. With a vibrant mix of nouveau design and high-quality traditional gear, Saks remains at the forefront of fashion, as well as the top echelon of quality.
Sixty-five percent of the menswear here is tailored clothing and furnishings; suits are priced from $650 to $3,000, with Armani, Donna Karan, Zegna, Valentino, Hugo Boss, Chester Barry, Hickey Freeman, Ralph Lauren's "Purple Label," Calvin Klein and Oxxford the key labels. Ralph Lauren, Prada, Lanvin, Ike Behar, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Gucci and Saks' private label make up the list of furnishings, with feature space given to Charvet and Hilditch & Key for their decidedly upscale haberdashery. There is an exclusive tailored clothing collection, with shirts and ties by award-winning designer Alan Flusser (who has a most handsome custom shop in the flagship New York store).
Inventive and tasteful sportswear includes lines by Barry Bricken, Gucci, Abboud, John Bartlett, Armani, DKNY, Versace, Polo, Wilke-Rodriguez, Ferragamo, Mondo di Marco and Jhane Barnes. Saks can also be counted on for a superb selection of better men's shoes: J. Weston, Paraboot, J.P. Tod's and Cole-Haan among them.
The Fifth Avenue Club, Saks' comprehensive shopping service, is available in its New York, Beverly Hills and San Francisco stores.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990).